The Many Facets of the Sephardic Spirit
Attempting to pin down the essence of the Sephardic spirit is akin to trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. Is it a religious outlook? A political viewpoint? An embracing of cultural traditions and mores? An overarching worldview? Or some version of all of the above?
The answer, of course, is, “It depends on whom you speak with,” because, as the age-old tradition goes: Speak to two Jews and you’ll get three opinions. However, everyone interviewed for this article agreed that there is a definite uptick in Jews from all backgrounds wanting to learn more about Sephardic traditions that go beyond the basic, “Don’t Sephardim eat rice on Passover?”
The Classical Sephardic Worldview
Los Angeles Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is director of the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC), which reaches out to young Jews and focuses on a Jewish way of life inspired by the teachings of Maimonides, known as the Classical Sephardic Worldview. With headquarters in Jerusalem and centers around the world, the SEC is focused on building a new generation of spiritual and community leaders that can be modern, progressive and inclusive, but still follow halachah (Jewish law).
For Bouskila and other Sephardic religious leaders, this is the Sephardic “spirit,” — a philosophy that embraces all Jews. “I’m 53,” Bouskila told the Journal, “and when I was growing up, Sephardic Judaism was at best a cultural footnote. It was, ‘Here’s what Sephardim eat, and here’s a museum exhibit on their colorful dress or a henna celebration,’ but there was no discussion of Sephardic ideology, philosophy or halachic rulings.”
Bouskila went to Jewish day schools, and Yeshiva University and learned nothing of Sephardic traditions. “It just didn’t exist anywhere,” he says. “It wasn’t part of the historical narratives of teaching Jewish history.”
Today, though, he says, there are programs, events and panels all over the world that focus on Sephardic texts and Sephardic rabbis and their teachings.
“Is the Sephardic spirit a religious outlook? A political viewpoint? An embracing of cultural traditions and mores An overarching worldview? Or some version of all of the above?”
Next week (March 15-17), the SEC is co-sponsoring Seattle-born and New York-based Rabbi Marc D. Angel as the scholar in residence at the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel on Wilshire Boulevard. Angel will speak on, among other things, the Classical Sephardic Worldview. And on March 18, Angel and Bouskila will co-sponsor an educators’ conference together with de Toledo High School Rabbi Devin Villarreal for teachers in Los Angeles’ Jewish day schools on how to incorporate Sephardic history, halachah and customs into the Jewish day school system.
“I do think there’s a growing awareness among Sephardim to reclaim their own roots to get back to the strength of their cultural traditions,” Angel told the Journal in a telephone interview from New York. “And there is also a growing interest among non-Sephardim. It’s not just about the food and music anymore. [Sephardim] also have strong intellectual traditions in Jewish law and philosophy that are all part of the equation.”
Part of that equation is a Sephardic tradition that doesn’t follow the Ashkenazi mold of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and other streams of Judaism.
“[Sephardim] have basically had a philosophy that I call intellectually vibrant, compassionate and inclusive,” Angel says. “Trying to synthesize the general principles that bring it all together, I’d say it’s 1. Joy in life; 2. A very optimistic religious worldview; 3. A strong sense of solidarity with the Jewish people as a whole; and 4. A sense of personal self worth or interiority.”
Growing up in a Sephardic community in Seattle among Turkish Jews and Jews from the Island of Rhodes, Angel says, “I didn’t know there was such a thing as Jewish guilt until I moved to New York. In Seattle, life was happy, religion was joyous and everyone was family-oriented.”
This, Angel says, stems from Sephardic Jews coming mainly from Muslim countries, where they lived in sunny climates and had sunny views of life. “Things like Jewish humor and Jewish guilt don’t apply to us. Ashkenazim came from cold places like Poland and Russia, and living in a Christian world was very different to living in a Muslim world.”
Bouskila says even the definition of “Sephardim” needs to be clarified. “I don’t ever use the term ‘Mizrachi” (Easterners) he says. “There’s absolutely no precedent for the term in Jewish history, Sephardic history, in halachah or in the prayer book.”
Rather, he says, it was a term born with Ashkenazi Zionism. He notes that when the Iraqi-born Rabbi Ovadia Yosef — Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi from 1973 to 1983 — spoke of the halachah of Sephardim, he meant the whole umbrella of Sephardim, not just those who descended from Spain.
Solutions to Political and Religious Problems
Los Angeles immigration attorney Neil Sheff is also the international president for the SEC, and has been involved with the organization since its inception in 1980.
He believes it’s Sephardim who could be at the forefront of solving some of both Israel’s and the Diaspora’s most pressing problems.
“Sephardim often have a really keen experience in terms of how they lived with, related to, dealt with and coexisted with Muslim populations, but unfortunately, Israeli society and government has never looked to the Sephardic community for insight into that. A lot of people say if there were Sephardic Jews in charge of either the government or the peace process, we would probably have found a way to get together with our neighbors a long time ago.”
Sheff, along with Bouskila and Angel say the classical Sephardic approach to problems also could heal the terrible rifts when it comes to issues ranging from stringent views on kashrut, the role of women, fertility issues and the “Who is a Jew” debate and concerns over conversion.
“If the traditional, classical Sephardic approach to ‘Who is a Jew’ and conversion would be followed, we would have much more happiness in the Jewish world and we wouldn’t have these constant fights among different denominations,” Sheff says. “Unfortunately, especially the more right you go in Orthodoxy, each tries to outdo the other one so they add on requirements that have no basis in law. The Sephardic approach is moderate. It just requires you to show your allegiance and do a few things, but doesn’t require you to become an ultra-Orthodox Jew in order to be counted as a Jew.”
“If the traditional classical Sephardic approach to ‘Who is a Jew’ and conversion would be followed, we would have much more happiness in the Jewish world and we wouldn’t have these constant fights among different denominations.” — Neil Sheff
However, Angel says he believes Sephardim in Israel are moving toward more Ashkenazic/Charedi models. “Regrettably, in Israel and the Diaspora, this [Classical Sephardic Worldview] tradition is breaking down, so Sephardim, even if they’re not formally identifying with Orthodoxy, Conservatism or Reform, they are being drawn to into these types of orbits — a more extremist model,” Angel says.
This is where organizations like the SEC can come into play, Sheff says. He agrees with Angel, saying there is greater polarization in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, with a shift in more extremism mostly to the right of the spectrum. “They’re basically trying to keep up with the Joneses on how ‘black’ they can be in their dress and outlook and thought processes.”
It’s precisely because of this sharp veer to the right that Sheff feels more people are seeking to learn the moderate Sephardic approach to halachah. “That’s why we’re encouraging educators to come and learn [with us at SEC],” he says.
Embracing the Cultural Traditions
And although Sephardic rabbis and teachers want the larger Jewish world to embrace this classical worldview, there always will be a fascination with Sephardic customs and traditions that can in fact create further inroads into Sephardic Jewish life.
At Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills, Rabbi Sarah Bassin decided three years ago to hold an annual Mimouna celebration (the Sephardic tradition of a feast held the day after the end of Passover), for young Jewish professionals.
“We had a really diverse young professionals board and we strategically decided we wanted to highlight different subsets of Jewish culture,” Bassin told the Journal. It started with a Cuban-Jewish event, then an Indian-Jewish event and that led to the Mimouna event.
“On a philosophical level, I think the American-Jewish context is one where we do have all these different fusion touch points of subsets of Jewish culture,” she says. “That’s what America does. It takes from all these minority cultures and then they get folded in and adapted and morphed into their own Americanized version.”
That, Bassin says, is part of what she hoped to cultivate and facilitate — “helping Ashkenazi Jews embrace the [Mimouna] experience and see that this is now something that can be part of their [overall] Jewish experience.”
Embracing Sephardic culture on the academic level is also happening at UCLAdino — an organization formed eight years ago to spread knowledge of Ladino — the Judeo-Spanish language — to students on campus and nationwide.
UCLAdino Director Max Daniel is a graduate student in Jewish Studies in the Maurice Amado Program in Sephardic Studies. There’s a large academic interest worldwide in studying Ladino, Daniel says. In addition, he says, “it’s part of my heritage and connects me to our culture as Sephardic Jews.” Daniel’s father was a native Ladino speaker who was born before World War II in Salonika, Greece.
At 25, Daniel is less than half Bouskila’s age, but he too says he grew up with a Jewish Day school education (in Chicago) but with zero focus on Sephardic culture, philosophy or tradition. “It was all Ashkenazi culture and the languages we focused on were Hebrew or Yiddish. What brings me to [the Ladino] group is that sense of reclaiming and almost relearning our heritage.”
“There is also a growing interest among non-Sephardim. It’s not just about the food and music anymore. [Sephardim] also have strong intellectual traditions in Jewish law and philosophy that are all part of the equation.” — Rabbi Marc D. Angel
Daniel says it struck him that he’s the first generation in his family to not grow up speaking Ladino. “My ancestry and heritage is important to me and [studying Ladino] is a concrete thing I can do. It exposes me to the texts and the culture and a lot of the mediums and the emotions of the language.”
Daniel believes there’s a definite interest in the Ladino language and Sephardic heritage or spirit that he says could be attributed to a renewed effort by Spain and Portugal to connect with Sephardic Jews. “On the academic side, they realize they’ve neglected these histories and communities for some time,” Daniel says.
He also believes that Jews from Sephardic communities living in the United States are now more comfortable speaking about their differences, “whereas before I think they wanted to find commonalities with Ashkenazi Jews who settled here.”
At Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein says, “It’s our job to create as many celebrations of as many different Jewish expressions as possible.” Feinstein began introducing a Sephardic High Holy Day service 10 years ago for Persian congregants, and recently implemented a monthly Sephardic Shabbat service called “Tmarim.”
Tmarim is run by Asher Levy, who grew up in the Valley Beth Shalom community and who studied ethnomusicology at UCLA. His family hails from Syria and his father is a rabbi. “We really wanted to see what would it sound like to do an entire Sephardic service and it’s become a beautiful part of our repertoire,” Feinstein says.
Much like Angel’s reference to the Sephardic joyful spirit, Feinstein says it’s wonderful to discover the “colorful aesthetic of Sephardic Jewry. They eat bright, colorful, spicy food. Ashkenazim eat gray gefilte fish. Sephardic Jewry is a colorful corrective to the restrained aesthetic of Ashkenazic Jewry.”
Feinstein believes embracing Sephardic traditions is part of American Jewry’s struggle to create a new aesthetic. “When we came to this country at the beginning of the 20th century, we brought all the models and the forms of Jewish life from [our] European communities, but those have now played themselves out. And we’re now comfortable enough in our Jewishness and ready for something brand new.”